Kirsty Williams and Leanne Wood announcing their budget deal

Budgeting for trouble

The Welsh Government will get its spending plans passed with the help of opposition parties whose criticism is increasing

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Senedd pays tribute to Nelson Mandela

A minute's silence will be observed in the National Assembly and AMs will be able to pay tributes to Nelson Mandela when they meet again on Tuesday.

A book of condolence has also been opened in the Senedd.

Nelson Mandela Book of Condolence, Senedd
A Nelson Mandela Book of Condolence has been opened at the Senedd Credit: National Assembly for Wales

Flags have been lowered to half-mast outside the Senedd today and will be lowered again on the day of Nelson Mandela's funeral - Sunday 15th December.

Flags at half-mast, Senedd
Flags fly at at half-mast outside the Senedd Credit: ITV News / Adrian Masters

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NUS concerns about part-time students

Representatives of the National Union of Students in Wales are also giving evidence to the Assembly's Finance Committee. Amongst the points made in their written submissions are:

  • NUS Wales believes universities in Wales face greater uncertainty as a result of the changes
  • There's also concern about the knock-on effect on further education
  • Part-time learners are being put off because they weren't taken into account in the current tuition fees policies and as a result are a lower priority for universities
  • A third of students had considered leaving their course because of financial worries
  • Restricting tuition fee help to Welsh students who study in Wales will create a two-tiered system and limit opportunities for Welsh students.

Universities set out funding warnings

University chiefs and representatives of the organisation which shares out funding to Welsh Universities are giving evidence to the Assembly's Finance Committee. They're setting out the impact of funding cuts and changes.

In its earlier evidence, the organisation representing higher education institutions, Higher Education Wales, says universities face an 'uncertain' future as a result of the changes. And it warns that they pose a risk to 'higher-cost' courses like medicine and engineering. HEW says:

  • Changes to the way universities are funded 'poses risks' to provision of 'higher-cost' subjects like medicine and engineering, Welsh medium provision and ensuring more students from disadvantaged backgrounds attend university.
  • Evidence from Wales and England shows that higher tuition fees of up to £9000 aren't putting off students from lower-income backgrounds 'with or without fee grant payments' like the Welsh subsidy
  • Universities can't take any further funding cuts 'without serious consequences' for their activities.

It follows a report last week into the costs of the tuition fees policy and the launch of a Welsh Government review into the funding of Higher Education.

Welsh Universities struggling to attract students says Vice Chancellor

The Vice Chancellor of Bangor University has told Assembly Members that universities in Wales are struggling to attract students from the rest of the UK and overseas.

John Hughes told the Finance Committee that institutions here 'are not in a position to invest' in the sort of facilities students who are now paying their own fees expect.

He said that's 'limited' the ability of Welsh universities to recruit students, something which they're 'already seeing in the figures.' The Finance Committee is looking into the impact of the Welsh Government's decision to subsidise the bulk of students' tuition fees.

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Call for government action over student funding

student
There are calls for the Welsh government to stop university funding going to English Universities Credit: PA

University bosses in Wales say the Welsh government should stop the flow of funding going to universities in England. Currently, £50m is being spent on supporting Welsh students over the border. The Welsh government says its tuititon fees policy is sustainable.

Cross-party criticism of Minister and Department

A Welsh Government department has been criticised by a cross-party group of Assembly Members for 'flawed' financial management and planning. A letter sent from the Environment and Sustainability Committee lists a series of concerns and criticisms of the Department and its Minister, Alun Davies.

The letter from the committee's chair, Dafydd Elis-Thomas, has been sent to the Assembly's Finance Committee and follows a recent evidence session with the Minister. It criticises both the evidence and says that led to wider worries:

When the Minister gave evidence to the Committee it was felt that he did not give sufficient information or adequate clarity on a range of issues. On occasion, the responses we received were in direct contradiction to the information provided in the written papers. This is indicative of the concerns we have about the general financial management and planning of this Department.

The committee's scrutiny was, says the letter, 'hampered by the lateness of the budget paper' leaving members less than 48 hours to prepare. It also highlights 'a number of basic errors...including references to the True Taste Awards which were disbanded earlier this year.'

These concerns all suggest to us that the financial management and planning within Natural Resources and Food is currently flawed, and that it needs to improve as a matter of priority.

– Lord Dafydd Elis-Thomas, Chair of the Environment and Sustainability committee

Call for more Assembly powers if court blocks bill

Plaid Cymru has said that if the Supreme Court strikes down the Assembly's new law on farm workers's wages, Westminster must pass a new Government of Wales Act to devolve the necessary powers.

Given that the purpose of the Bill was to protect Welsh agricultural workers after the UK Government scrapped that protection, it is disappointing that the Attorney General has referred the Bill to the Supreme Court. This comes on the same day as the Silk Commission poll findings that once again show that the people of Wales trust the National Assembly more than they trust Westminster and want to see significantly more powers transferred to Wales.

Plaid Cymru hopes that these important safeguards for agricultural workers are found to be within the National Assembly’s powers.

– Plaid Cymru Agriculture spokesperson Llyr Gruffydd AM

Meanwhile the UK Government has defended the Attorney General's decision to refer the legislation to the Court, arguing that it is a necessary procedure under the devolution settlement.

All legislation passed by the National Assembly for Wales is examined to ensure it is within their competence. Upon examination of the Agricultural Sector (Wales) Bill, the Attorney General considers that it raises important questions about the breadth of the National Assembly for Wales’ legislative competence and that the Supreme Court is the right forum for resolving those questions. The UK Government is committed to continuing to do all it can to ensure that the current devolution arrangements work effectively.

– UK Government Spokesperson

But the Shadow Welsh Secretary, Owen Smith, has claimed that today's action is part of a pattern of behaviour by the Welsh Secretary, David Jones. He added that a previous challenge to the Assembly's Byelaws Bill cost £150,000 before the judges ruled last year in the Welsh Government's favour.

After the last attempt, David Jones said he’d learnt lessons about the boundaries of devolution but once again he is questioning the Assembly’s authority.

David Jones and Dominic Grieve voted to scrap the Agricultural Wages Board in England and now they’re trying to block a Bill that will protect the wages and conditions of 13,000 farm workers in Wales. But what’s really at stake is Tory acceptance of the devolution settlement and respect for the Welsh Assembly.

The Tories are revealing their antipathy to devolution and their determination to block Labour measures to make Wales a fairer place.

– Shadow Welsh Secretary Owen Smith MP
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